Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, October 27, 2014

Halloween 2014: October 26

Mighty Joe Young (1998)

I’m not sure what inspired Disney to remake “Mighty Joe Young” in the late nineties. The original was known, and well-liked in certain circles, but not quite a universally beloved classic. The same year, Godzilla got a long-simmering remake of sorts. Maybe remakes of classic ‘50s monster flicks were expected to become the next big trend in Hollywood. As we all know now, TriStar’s “Godzilla” was a huge disappointment. 1998’s “Mighty Joe Young” was a box office dud too. Honestly, the film’s not horror at all, which might make you wonder why I’m reviewing it on the week of Halloween, especially since I’ve pointedly skip the various King Kong remakes. The honest truth? I got it out of a K-Mart five dollar dump bin. There, that’s my terrible secret.

The remake updates the original’s story to the modern day. In the wilds of Africa, Jill Young is living with her mother, a zoologist studying gorillas. Jill has already befriended Joe, an abnormally large baby gorilla. When both of their mothers are killed by poachers, Jill and Joe’s bound grows stronger. Twenty years later, Joe has grown up to be the size of an elephant. The original’s nightclub owner is switched out for a wildlife refugee director, who entices Jill to bring the big ape to America, in hopes of keeping him safe. Joe makes the news, naturally, drawing the attention of a vengeful poacher.

Much as monster fans love it, stop-motion animation effects weren’t going to fly in 1998. The remake of “Mighty Joe Young” brings the gorilla to life mostly through animatronic suits. Joe is immediately recognizable as the work of Rick Baker and his team, comparable to his similar work in “Gorillas in the Mist” and other films. The creature work is excellent. Joe is expressive and always seems real. Occasionally, Baker’s great work is traded out for some CGI which has, as you’d expect, hasn’t aged well. More importantly, Joe remains a full-blown character. He gets sad, scared, angry, curious, and remorseful. A favorite moment of mine has the gorilla waving at a little boy he passes while in transport. The ape has a lot of personality. Instead of rampaging through a night club, the movie upgrades the finale to Hollywood. Joe sits on a blaring car, a moment prominently featured in the trailers, and climbs Grauman’s Chinese Theater. You can tell “Tremors” director Ron Underwood and his team were fans of the original as Joe is treated with a proper amount of awe, affection and respect. (Also, Ray Harryhausen and Terry Moore have a super cute cameo.)

The remake leads with a pair of solid actors. Charlize Theron had yet to define herself as a leading lady yet, her Best Actress Oscar several years off. This film was actually her first top-billed performance. Theron is good, a few flat line readings aside. Jill in this version is much more proactive and tough. The romance in the original was fairly routine which the remake attempts to correct. Bill Paxton is an improvement over Ben Johnson’s Gregg. While Johnson was mostly an undefined cowboy type, Paxton plays the character as an impassioned defender of wildlife. He has a charming, rogue-ish quality to him that plays to Paxton’s strength as a performer. Theron and Paxton have decent chemistry together. Yet the romantic subplot is still mostly put into the film for its own sake.

Most of the criticism of 1998’s “Mighty Joe Young” have centered around the story’s Disneyfication. The remake doesn’t soften the story too much, as it was already pretty soft. However, it does add a big villain to the piece. Strasser, an evil poacher, gets his thumb bitten off by baby Joe before the opening credits. In the years after that, he’s become a seller of endangered animal parts. His process is fairly cartoonish. He convinces people with rare animals that he runs a preserve, before actually killing the animal and selling it. I don’t think that would be a sustainable business model. The guy is reintroduced talking about murdering a panda bear. How much more blatantly evil could you get? This plot development really seems forced in, especially as the film goes on. I don’t know if a big stand-off between Joe and the bad guy was necessary. The original “Joe” featured a fairly mawkish ending. This being Disney, the studio couldn’t help but play that up even more. Instead of saving babies from a burning orphanage, Joe rescues a kid from a collapsing Ferris wheel. The sequence is dramatically directed but the image of Joe, on the ground, near death, with Jill weeping above him, is rather overwrought. Considering how much more collateral damage Joe reaps in this version, I can’t foresee the ape surviving and returning to Africa, much less a new nature perverse being opened with money from charitable donations. Jill would be up to her eyeballs in lawsuits.

“Mighty Joe Young” is hyper inoffensive and, as a result, relatively forgettable. It’s a decent remake, as it expands and updates the story logically. However, it does so without bringing anything new to the table. The cast is likable, the effects are great, James Horner’s score is above average, but I’d be surprised if I remember anything about this remake in a year’s time. Stick with the original. [6/10]

Sick Girl (2007)

“Sick Girl” doesn’t make any friends with its opening scene. The movie begins with Izzy, its main character, covered in dirt and standing on the side of the road. After a school bus picks her up, a pair of Catholic school girls mock her and a possibly mentally disabled girl gawks at her. Izzy then punches out a nun and urinates on her. Next, she hitches a ride with a pair of obnoxious guys, abrasive punk music blaring from their radio. Izzy quickly slices the one’s throat, tracks down the school bus, and murders most everyone inside. “Sick Girl” is not a nice movie. It’s a splatterpunk novel put to film, most assuredly not for everyone, and will actively put off the majority of viewers.

Yet after that, “Sick Girl” falls into a weird balance. The post-opening scene has Izzy washing her bloody clothes, silent flashbacks to the earlier carnage playing in her head. She’s lives with her little brother Kevin, family friend Barney frequently stopping by. Their parents are gone. Izzy’s older brother Rusty, a marine, is overseas. Izzy sexually, romantically pines for Rusty, a feeling he didn’t reciprocate. In her free time, when not helping her family, she brutally murders and tortures anyone who irritates her. The scenes focused on Izzy’s relationship with her little brother and Barney are sincere. A moment where she tucks him into bed, teasing and tickling him, is genuinely sweet. The movie’s set around the holidays and a Christmas morning gift exchange is funny and soft as well. The reason “Sick Girl” works – maybe the only reason it works – is because the familial bond between the characters reads as real and well earned.

This counts for a lot since, when “Sick Girl” isn’t focused on a small family trying to survive in a rough world, it’s focused on hardcore torture and death. Izzy tracks down a trio of bullies harassing Kevin. All the kids are around eight years old. She forces the ringleader of the bullies to drawn the other kids in a river and chides him when he stabs one in the back. The surviving kid is taken back to the family stable, where Izzy strings him up, has a live rat chew on his face, and breaks his arms and legs. The most graphic scene in the movie comes when Izzy castrates the lone survivor of the opening murder. She strings the severed penis on a chain around her waist and rapes one of the virginal schoolgirls with it. It’s, uh, a rough moment. The gore effects are crude enough that it registers as shocks-for-shocks sake, instead of having any deeper purpose. Yet many of these gruesome moments are characterized by a blackly comedic tone. An obnoxiously saccharine pop song plays during the aforementioned castration/rape scene. When abducting the young bullies, Izzy makes an off-hand quip about pitch-forking someone. There’s a glib sarcasm to much of the slaughter, which certainly helps soften the blow.

Holding the movie together, in an odd way, is Leslie Andrews’ lead performance as Izzy. Andrews is about an unconventional a leading lady as you could ask for. With a boy’s haircut, a short stature, wide owl eyes, buckteeth, numerous tattoos, and a square body, she’s no one’s idea of a movie star. She’s an uneven actress, giving some of Izzy’s lengthy monologues a flat, self-serious reading. Andrews, however, has something even the best actors don’t always achieve: An unforgettable screen presence and a compelling nature that viewers can’t look away from. There’s an overwhelming intensity behind her huge, blue eyes. She gives Izzy an unpredictable edge. The girl really does act as if her whole world is crumbling, that you have no idea what she’ll do next. This is best displayed during an awkwardly funny sequence where Izzy is picked up by a driver. The guy says all the wrong things and comes very close to getting his throat slashed. That doesn’t happen though because the guy doesn’t offend Izzy’s interior morals. The moment is both suspenseful and weirdly funny. “Sick Girl” would probably not be worth watching without Andrews. She hasn’t worked a lot since this but she deserves a lengthy, character actress’ career.

“Sick Girl” is hard to like for other reasons beyond its self-aggravatingly gruesome content. The visual aesthetic is ugly. The colors are washed out. The sound design is grating, with an abrasive, throbbing electronic score. The plot is loose, without a lot of major events. The whole thing is only a little over an hour too, making it seem like there wasn’t much of a script to begin with. On his subsequent film, “House of the Wolf Man,” Eben McGarr proved that he has a strong command of visuals and style. (If not the ability to write a wholly compelling script.) So “Sick Girl’s” hideous look has to be intentional. The movie puts you in the ugly, bi-polar world of a mentally unstable serial killer. Izzy is, as the title indicates, sick. The movie around her follows suit.

Despite a mountain of reservations, I like “Sick Girl.” Eben McGarr is the truest of independent filmmakers, scrapping his tiny movies together with tiny amounts of money. The movie is undisciplined and obviously unpolished. Beneath the grime, there’s a strange heart and soul and a true understanding of the main character. It’s probably not a good date movie but patient, tolerant indie horror fans might want to give it a look. [7/10]

Hammer House of Horror: The House That Bled to Death

Every year around October, strictly for fun, I cut together a mix of commercials, trailers, short films, and horror movie and TV episode clips. Just for my friends and I. I call it my Halloween Megamix. Anyway, while looking for scary moments from horror television history to include, I learned about “The House That Bled to Death.” It’s an episode of the eighties British anthology series, “Hammer House of Horror.” The series was an attempt by the defunct Hammer Studio to extend their iconic brand into the then-modern age. Despite its brief run, the show maintains a following and even got a state-side DVD release.

The hour is a fairly typical haunted house story and almost definitely inspired by “The Amityville Horror.” A husband, wife, and their young daughter move into a new home, unaware of that the last man to live there murdered and dismembered his wife. Immediately, strange things begin to befall the family. A pair of rusty kukris are found in the home. The family cat dies mysteriously and gruesomely. The picture of her father that the daughter keeps on her bedside catches fire. Blood leaks from the plumbing. The stress takes its toll on the wife. Eventually, things are revealed to not be what they seem.

The reason “The House That Bled to Death” has been singled out from the other “Hammer House of Horror” episodes is one specific scene. In order to help the traumatized daughter settle into her new home, her parents throw a birthday party with all the other kids in the neighborhood. While the little kids are gathered around the table for cake, a pipe comes loose from the wall. After sputtering for a minute, blood pours from the pipe, dousing the mom and kids. It’s a shocking moment, gruesomely funny without sacrificing its horrifying qualities.

Does the rest of the episode lived up to that fantastic moment. Not really. There’s a lot of the typical haunted house shenanigans. The family doesn’t move out despite the horrifying things happening around them. The slow build is especially slow. The noisy neighbors play far too extended a role. The performances are fairly cheesy. Aside from the bleeding walls, “The Amityville Horror” was an influence in another way. Both are obvious metaphors for a new home nickel-and-diming a struggling family to death.

However, the twist ending seems to acknowledge the facts behind the Amityville case. Turns out, the entire thing was hoaxed by the family in order to make themselves rich from book and movie deals. It’s an utterly preposterous and unlikely ending but I still liked it. I’m not sure I have much interest to seeking out the rest of “Hammer House of Horror” but “The House That Bled to Death” is a decently entertaining episode, if one hobbled by the conventions of early eighties television. [7/10]


whitsbrain said...

I've seen the "Mighty Joe Young" remake and it isn't as good as the original.

Man! I would have ZERO interest in ever seeing "Sick Girl".

Bonehead XL said...

I probably made it sound worst then it is but... Yeah, as I said, it's a hard movie to like.